Body and Spirit

Ruth Harris. Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. Penguin, 2000.

This is a detailed study of a charismatic religious movement founded by a young woman, 14 yr. old Bernadette Soubrious, in the French Pyrennees in 1858. The first part of this book deals with Bernadette's hallucinatory encounter, in a wild place just outside town, the sort of the liminal zone where supernatural encounters are often reported. This encounter is with a 'luminous figure' of a young girl aged perhaps twelve. This figure Bernadette called Aquero, a name which seems to be roughly translatable as 'The Thing' or 'Whatever', which suggests its indefinite protean quality. It might become a phantom playmate, like 'the children' envisioned by Eileen Garrett, or, as it did for a day or two, a local ghost, before it became the vision of the Virgin Mary, an identity apparently confirmed when Bernadette announced it had said "I am the Immaculate Conception". Had Bernadette been a British girl of the same period, there can be little doubt that Whatever would have become a very British ghost.

Reading the accounts is reading through an opaque glass, we get very little sense of the pre-visionary Bernadette, though we get odd hints. Her family were petit bourgeois who hadn't so much fallen on hard times but nose-dived, and had just about hit rock bottom. Bernadette was a girl in poor health, shipped from pillar to post, returned to a foster mother who had doted on her as toddler, but now became hostile and abusive. Used as a café drudge, shepherdess and anything else going; father feckless and rumoured to be a lush. It all sounds like something out of social workers report, and perhaps today she would be on the 'at risk register'. This is the sort of background we have seen again and again in our field: the psychological and emotionally abused child, who develops an extraordinary capacity of absorption, as a defence against the world. All the commentators remark on the total absorption of her 'trances', her immunity from pain (at this period also being seen as the hallmark of the hypnotic trance), and her ability to escape from her situation.

Her initial encounter has a moment of odd paralysis: she tries to go to her rosary but cannot, till the figure shows her how - a hint at a sleep paralysis episode. Note also the similarity to those French 'occupant stories' of 1954, and their odd paralysis. There is one other example of déja-vu: a painting by Bernadette's brother Jean-Marie, suggesting considerable naive artistic ability. Bernadette also belongs to a tradition of a young female as the centre of supernatural visitation, whether the witch girls of Salem and elsewhere, the Fox sisters or the Cottingley cousins. 'Whatever' addresses her, the bottom of the heap, politley, as if she is somebody. For a moment power relationships are reversed. But this is no fairy story, for Bernadette there was no real happy ending, she had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, that meant she belonged in a convent, where an eye could be kept on her, and she couldn't get up to anything that might bring the church into embarrassment. There she was subject to what looks like pretty relentless emotional abuse 'to inculcate humility'.

As a reward, of course, when she was safely dead, she was made into a saint. I am not sure that one gets many of these insights in Harris's book, for while she does bring out much of the cultural background, one senses no real leap beyond the conventional school book image. Whether because as a 'secular Jew' she feels obliged still to lean over backwards to be fair, or because she has indeed fallen under spell of Lourdes, there is a clear emotional bias towards the Lourdesiards, and a major effort to empathise with them, but very little attempt to really get under the skin of the critics, who emerge as rather cardboard characters. This script, the young woman whose 'truth and testimony' challenges hardnosed male scepticism is one which is still played out today, though folk Catholicism may have given way to folk therapism. Harris's emphasis on Bernadette's testimony of the body, her body postures and ecstasies have their counterparts in therapism also. The second part of this book details the rise of the Lourdes pilgrimage and cult, and again Harris leans over backwards to empathise with the often hideously reactionary and antisemitic Lourdesiards, several of whom were active in the persecution of Dreyfus.

This connection between the healing cult and hatred sounds paradoxical, how can such 'good' people do such bad things? But, perhaps, to be fanciful it isn't, perhaps to focus all the love and positive, healing emotions to the in-group requires an equal and opposite direction of violent negative emotions towards an out-group. It certainly seems that many contemporary 'healing ministries' are often associated with extreme bigotry and hatred towards out groups. As to the final mystery, as to who or what was 'Whatever'? Well, to me, it seems that at least partially she was an image of Bernadette herself, as she wished to be, happy, healthy, well dressed, respectable, physically and spiritually pure and clean (the obstuse theology of the immaculate conception was probably beyond Bernadette, but I'm sure she had some idea of it meaning something like 'free from dirt and corruption'). A fairy tale princess. -- Peter Rogerson. Originally published on-line, July 2001.

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